Roman Feminine Ideals and Their Influence on Cornelia, Livia, and Messalina

Term Paper for Women in European History by Darci Clark

The feminine ideal for Roman women was influenced by legendary heroines from the founding of the Republic. Women such as Lucretia would be viewed as an example of proper behavior which all women should strive to emulate. The archetype of the proper Roman matron would be the goal of women like Cornelia and Livia, but would be rejected by the decadent Messalina.

Lucretia Committing Suicide 18th Century Sculpture

The “Rape of Lucretia” is a legendary tale that was the impetus for the overthrow of the Etruscan monarchy and the formation of the Roman Republic. The story represented the belief that a woman’s place was in the home and they should be dedicated to traditional values. Lucretia would become a paragon of Roman womanhood for centuries to come.

The Roman historian Livy told Lucretia’s tale in his work The History of Rome. The story begins with a competition between the Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, and his men to determine which of them had the most virtuous wife. Tarquinius Collatinus, the king’s own cousin and general, insisted his wife Lucretia was the most honorable. To settle the question, the men decided to visit their homes and determine what their wives were actually doing. Lucretia was the only wife who was at home, engaged in spinning her wool, while all the other wives were attending a feast. Among the men to visit Lucretia was the son of the king, Sextus Tarquinius.

Seduced by her chastity and virtue, Sextus returned to her home several days later and threatened to kill her unless she gave herself to him. When she refused, he escalated his threats to include leaving her dead body with a naked slave to show she was killed during a promiscuous liaison. The thought of this disgrace was too much for her to bear and she gave in to him.

Cornelia Mother of the Two Gracchi Brothers 19th Century Sculpture

She told her husband and father of her ordeal, beseeching them to pursue and punish Sextus. Lucretia said, “I will absolve myself of blame, and I will not free myself from punishment. No woman shall use Lucretia as her example in dishonor.” Unable to live with the shame, she committed suicide. Her death rallied the people of Rome to overthrow Tarquinius Superbus and drive him from the city. The Roman Republic had been born.

The tale of Lucretia’s sacrifice became a symbol of monarchical corruption, giving the newly found Republic its own identity separate from the Etruscans. Lucretia’s modesty and dedication to feminine duties, coupled with her desire to protect her family’s honor would demonstrate the ideal behavior expected of a Roman woman.

In the late Republic no woman embodied the ideal of the perfect Roman matron more than Cornelia. She was the daughter of the famous Scipio Africanus, the general who defeated Hannibal during the Second Punic War. Cornelia was the mother of twelve children, but only three lived to adulthood. Renowned for dedicating herself to her children’s education and upbringing, she also influenced politics through two of her sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Both of these men advocated reforms to benefit the poor which were unpopular with the many members of the Senate, and were eventually assassinated. Cornelia was admired for enduring both of their murders bravely never showing her grief. She was also applauded for her modesty, famously saying she did not need extravagances since her children were her jewels. Cornelia would be a real-life role model for generations to come.

At the end of the Republic, Lucretia’s paradigm of a Roman woman diligently wool-working would be used by Augustus as propaganda to convince the Roman public of his commitment of returning Rome to traditional values and morality. Citizens would be able to see his wife Livia and other women of the first family working their looms in the open atrium of the emperor’s residence, projecting an image of domestic tranquility.

Livia Drusilla: Rome’s First Empress

As Rome’s first empress Livia truly became a new breed of Roman woman. She traveled abroad with her husband performing ceremonial duties and greeting VIPs and became a mediator between Augustus and the Roman citizenry. Livia garnered many exclusive privileges during her lifetime. One of the most important early in her life was the right to have her likeness displayed publicly in a statue. Prior to this time, only one female statue of Cornelia had ever been displayed in Rome. After the death of Augustus, Livia received her greatest honors. He made provisions in his will that she be formally adopted into the Julian family and given the honorific name Julia Augusta.

Livia continued to exercise her political influence during the reign of her son Tiberius. Tiberius was Livia’s son from a previous marriage so his connection to Augustus, and therefore the rule of Rome, was only through her. When he believed Livia was overstepping conventional bounds he had to tread carefully considering her popularity with the people and the Senate. He even vetoed the additional honors the Senate tried to bestow on his mother after Augustus’ death, one of which would have given his official title as “son of Livia”.

There is some speculation that Livia poisoned Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, who was Tiberius’ rival to succeed as the ruler of the empire. This conjecture reinforces the stereotype of the devious woman using drugs or potions to wreak havoc and death.The Roman historian Tacitus goes so far as to accuse her of poisoning Augustus as well. Even with all her accomplishments and honors, Livia’s legacy, as many other powerful women in ancient times, would not be spared from this type of defamation. Regardless of her desire to influence the politics of her day, Livia remained faithful to the conservative ideals implemented by Augustus. Was she the treacherous and ambitious political operator Tacitus suggests or simply a strong, politically savvy woman dedicated to her family and the Roman empire?

Messalina Holding Britannicus: 1st Century Marble Sculpture

If Livia was the epitome of female decorum Valeria Messalina was symptomatic of the decadence that had begun to take over the imperial family. Influenced by the corruption and sexual promiscuity prominent in the tyrannical Roman emperor Caligula’s court, Messalina was the antithesis for the values set forth by the legend of Lucretia. Messalina was married to the emperor Claudius, a weak man she manipulated to gain power and influence. Her sexual exploits were legendary and there were even rumors that she worked as a prostitute to satiate her carnal appetites.

Messalina would target political and sexual rivals and convince Claudius to have them executed or forced into suicide. Her final outrageous act was to attempt to marry another man she had become infatuated with while Claudius was away. This betrayal was too much even for Claudius and Messalina was executed.

Lucretia’s honorable example would influence women like Cornelia and Livia to dedicate themselves to their families and live a modest and productive life. Messalina’s rejection of these traditional values showed the deterioration of morality by the emperors after the death of Augustus, where corruption, decadence, and greed became the cultural norm.

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Livy. “Livy: The Rape of Lucretia, from the History of Rome.” Translated by Jean Bayet.
The Ancient History Sourcebook
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken, 1975, 1995.

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